A world divided

I am writing about modern stratification processes in the Gothenburg and Helsinki area for my research project and it is horrifying to see how groups of people still today are divided into different categories and how some places are stigmatized according to the people who live there.

I am also thinking about Hannah’s and my audio project about Inga Donner Solonevich, who in her twenties was forced into a life on the run from Finland, her home country.  First on the run from Stalin because she married a Russian artist who had fled to Finland from Stalin’s Russia, then from Hitler’s Germany, where the family had sought refuge from Stalin, and finally from Peron’s Argentina to the US. I am also thinking about what Inga said to me: “Nobody choses to live a life in exile!”

It is hard to imagine how it is to be forced to be on the run from the country you were born in and where your whole family lives to be able to live with the man you love, as in Inga’s case, or because of the color of you skin, ethnicity or political believes.

Jane Elliott changed her lesson plan the day Martin Luther King died 50 years ago. She divided the children into groups according to the color of their eyes. One day the brown-eyed children were categorized as less intelligent and the next day the blue-eyed got the same treatment. This – today legendary “Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” experiment – she says, proves that racism is a learned behavior and not part of the human genetic code. The experiment taught children to discriminate against one another on the basis of eye color. For Jane Elliott, one of the most disturbing aspects of her lesson in discrimination was noticing how her third-graders did inferior work on the day when they were made to feel like the “inferior” group, and performed well on tests on the day when they were made the “superior” group.


We had one (brown-eyed) girl with a mind like a steel trap who never misspelled a word until we told her that brown eyes were bad.

Elliot said, demonstrating the power of prejudice in shaping children’s self-images. When I watch the PBS film I suffer deeply with her students but at the same time I think adults, as well as children, have to experience something to be able to, at least partially, understand how it is to be in somebody else’s shoes.

How much have changed since the 1950s? Forum för levande historia (The living history forum) in Stockholm is doing a good job in giving students a chance to try to understand how it feels to be categorized in this way. In the expedition a couple of years ago “(O)mänskligt”  (“(In)human”) high-school students learned, in a teacher-led workshops, to see links between historical happenings and our own time. How do we sort today:

People have always had the need to sort each other in different groups, both consciously and unconsciously. Race biology, measurements, forced sterilization and grave looting is historical evidence of categorization. What kind of society, science and politics have made this possible? What can we learn from history? And how do we sort each other today? With (O) human, we want to show the importance of respecting the equal dignity and rights.

Jane Elliotts class

Jane Elliotts class KLICK to watch

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